Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tijuana Tales

"But we did nothing, absolutely nothing that day, and I say:

What the hell am I doing drinking in L.A. at 26?"

– Bran Van 3000, Drinking in L.A.

"All I wanna do is have some fun
Until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard"
– Sheryl Crow, All I Wanna Do

Just for the record: I have been drinking in L.A. aged 26 and I have driven down Santa Monica Boulevard whilst listening to the Sheryl Crow song.

After staying with some millionaires in a mansion in Pacific Palisades, L.A., I hired a car to go driving round the States. It should be noted this was just weeks after passing my driving test in England. I'd never driven a car without a driving instructor, never been on a motorway, never driven at night or in the rain, in an automatic on the right-hand side. And here I was midday in L.A. I was petrified.

Things started badly. I drove along a four-lane one-way freeway – the wrong way. Just as the lights were changing to green, four lanes of cars started racing towards me. I swerved just in time. Into a bus stop. I stalled up on the kerb. People at the bus-stop were staring at me. Drivers in their open-top jeeps were shouted at me. I tried to concentrate on the driving; it was embarrassing more than anything else. I somehow got off the kerb and started driving normally. A few hours later I'd left LA and started heading north. Things were getting better. But it was now dark and raining, and I found myself driving too fast. A cop car flashed its lights behind me. My heart stopped. Then it overtook me and pulled over the car in front of me.

I eventually made it to Berkeley and stayed with a friend for a week. There was a moment, driving over the Golden Gate bridge, when a car full of Californian girls passed me in an open top car. They all looked over at me, smiling. I smiled back and thought, yes, this is what it's like to be an American.

I drove 3,000 miles around California, Arizona and Nevada over the next few weeks and stopped off in San Diego. In the evening I wondered round the gaslight area. it was nice and gentrified, but i was ready for Tijuana.

I love overland border crossings, they really accentuate the differences between two countries; by flying you hardly notice, for all airports seem the same. However, I felt a bit disappointed by Tijuana. It seemed so tacky – I was expecting an old-fashioned frontier town atmosphere. Instead it was American tourists with their cheap cartons of Marlboro, their prescription-only drugs, their two-for-one Margaritas. I got lost then got a taxi back into town. The driver asked me if I wanted to fuck his wife, mother or daughter. His mother was cheap, his daughter expensive. I wasn't sure he was joking.

I drank two-for-one Margaritas in a loud, tacky bar. I got drunk and out in the street a small, portly Mexican with untrustworthy eyes and a moustache started walking with me. He seemed friendly – and I thought, great, a friendly local and we chatted away. Suddenly he said he's a policeman and he's been watching me. He said 'We believe you are part of an international drugs ring and I'm going to take you down to the police station for questioning.'
At first, I laughed. It sounded funny, like out of a movie. Then I looked at the man. He wasn't laughing.
'You think I am joking?'
He turned nasty.
'This isn't the United States, this isn't Europe. We can do what we want with you here.'

He made a signal to someone in a car, an undercover cop, he told me. He said he was important around here. He was annoying. He wouldn’t leave me alone. I guess I was scared but it just sounded a bit half-baked and I couldn’t really take the short, stubby Mexican too seriously. I asked him what he wanted. He said he wanted money. I told him all I had was travellers cheques (partially true). I can’t remember how long the money conversation went on for – quite some time anyway. Even when you’re being scammed you can haggle, and haggling takes time. I think I gave him like $1 in the end.

Then I bought two cartons of cheap Marlboros and decided to get out of the place. I got worried at the border when I read you couldn’t take more than one carton of cigarettes into the States. I asked someone to carry a carton for me – turned out he was Irish and we chatted till past the border and back into San Diego. Then a young American guy was over-hearing me with the Irish guy that I was new in town and he ended up showing me round all these cool bars. I quite liked him, and it was real kind of him, and we heard some great blues music in some nice bars, but I wasn’t sure what his angle was. A lot of the time we didn’t have much to talk about. I wasn’t sure if he was gay, lonely, over-friendly or an undercover cop. I couldn’t decide what was worse.


Previously unpublished; if you like your travel stories peppered with sex, drugs, loneliness and despair, don't forget my travel book, Gullible Travels, is available to buy from

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